Emmanuel Macron, who is rapidly becoming the frontrunner in the French ElectionsGouvernement français

Half a year ago, no one would have believed that Emmanuel Macron would be a front-runner of the French presidential elections. He had often made his presidential aspirations quite clear, but his strategy was seen as trying to gain a foothold in French politics, not to actually win the presidency. And yet, he is now one of the top candidates.

Having gone through a private catholic institute, the Lycée Henri IV, Sciences Po and l’ENA, Macron is one of the most perfect examples of the French ruling elite. Notorious for having worked for the Rothschild bank, he became President Hollande’s economic advisor following his election, and later on his Minister for the Economy and the Industry in 2014. Through his education and career paths, he is representative of the small circle of the ‘all-powerful elite’, flourishing in a time of crisis and populist discontent for the rest of France.

Much of the criticism against him has come from the traditional left, rebuked by his elite origins and his ‘volatility’ between the public and private sectors. Refusing to adhere to any specific party and reiterating several times that he was not a socialist, Macron has built his political image on his proactive attitude, independence and unapologetic liberalism. Despite his role as the architect of Hollande’s economic policy, often regarded as a political failure, he has somehow managed to maintain a popular image. Indeed, his popularity is based on a positive and fairly vacuous programme, focused on the vague need to further economic reforms and to liberate society.

In fact, Macron’s campaign has been blessed with a surprising amount of luck: Hollande’s renouncement to run for re-election has given him a political space for his campaign; with the tacit support of much of the media and the establishment, Macron has also been able to attract representatives from both centre-left and centre-right to build his own political coalition; and with François Fillon’s potential corruption scandals making the news, and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s defeat in the left-wing primaries, Macron’s political space has expanded dramatically.

And so, slowly, his numbers in the opinion polls started rising. As Marine Le Pen’s numbers remain constant, it appears for now that the true contest of the presidential election will be about deciding who, between Macron and Fillon, gets to face Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election.

“Macron is an odd ball: while he essentially represents those in the elite that have led to the rise of populism, he also appears as the candidate most likely to contain it”

The programmes and ideas of Macron and Fillon both have their core in liberalism. Some anti-liberal, left-wing commentators might even cynically say that their political beliefs are identical, subordinated to the requests and desires of corporations. However, to many voters, there is a significant difference: whereas Macron incarnates the positive, punchy, energetic, and often idealistic vision of a liberal future, Fillon incarnates a more pessimistic, realistic, ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ approach.

Macron is a progressive liberal, promising to “free the country” and to “dismantle corporatism” – he endorses gay marriage and religious tolerance as much as he does economic liberalisation and pro-business policies. On the other hand, by combining social conservatism and economic liberalism, Fillon’s programme is more appropriate for appearing as a serious, experienced and solid candidate, but it is a position that leaves little space for dynamism and energy. There is no doubt that Macron is enjoying a positive dynamic: it is easier to incarnate the main opposition to the National Front with a more positive and less reactionary programme than Fillon’s.

What can we expect will happen to Macron and his campaign? The truth is, nobody knows. His candidacy’s future is as unpredictable as this presidential campaign has been so far. He has no real party structure, no mandate, little experience and small representative support. His centrist candidacy may be compromised if François Bayrou, a historical centrist figure in French politics, decides to run in the election as well. Little of his presidential programme has been revealed yet, and his numbers might decline when his campaign comes under stronger public scrutiny.

Macron is an odd ball: while he essentially represents those in the elite that have led to the rise of populism, he also appears as the candidate most likely to contain it. He appears as the establishment’s adaptation to the new rules of the political game: a young, modern, energetic candidate, with more style and less substance, more soundbites and fewer details. In fact, parallels are often drawn between him and Justin Trudeau: privileged and likeable, he represents those who have embraced an entrepreneurial and international lifestyle, often referred to as the ‘winners of globalisation’.

“a young, modern, energetic candidate, with more style and less substance, more soundbites and fewer details.”

Macron’s main objective is to represent the political renewal of the establishment – he sees in Marine Le Pen his main rival, and he seeks to reorganise French politics under a progressive/populist cleavage. Often referred to as ‘the ex-banker’, Macron is often seen as the ‘corporate’ candidate of this election, and yet, he might now be the left’s best chance to avoid a depressing second round between François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. Still, this could play in the latter’s advantage: by giving her his main opposition role, Macron has helped Le Pen in building her image as the candidate of the ‘losers of globalisation’, leading a French crusade against the financial and corporate forces. Soundbites against soundbites, French politics seem to be reorganising around new class cleavages that might underpin the political developments of the coming decades.

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